So. This year has been an enormous, raging, uncontrollable garbage fire, but at least it gave us some good movies. Here’s my shortlist of the best movies for 2016. Minor spoilers, and these are in no particular order.
Captain America: Civil War: I don’t think anyone’s shocked at this being one of my first picks for the best of 2016. Like the Avengers, this movie gives me a massive rush of fangasm to see so many of our Marvel heroes in one story, and it’s great because not only do we know the core team, but we also get introduced to some new faces. Everyone went into this movie expecting to love the fight scenes—which were incredible—and yet we all came out with the same consensus: bump the main team, we need 1000000% more Black Panther and Spider-Man. I am truly blown away how much I liked those two. They were by far the biggest standout characters introduced into the MCU and I cannot wait for both of their solo films, because they have proven to be incredibly interesting. Still, I of course give the movie credit for being the most heart-wrenching film in the MCU canon. We were hit hard and often in the feels, from losing Peggy Carter to seeing Tony and Steve’s friendship fall apart to seeing poor Bucky being used against his will to murder the innocent. It’s a phenomenal film with all the right elements and it has a massive rewatch quality for that same reason.
If you're interested, you can read my full review here.
Moana: Again, this is no surprise. I am a huge Disney fan, and I am especially a fan of Disney princess films and how they have evolved over the decades. Moana is exactly that: the natural progression of a Disney princess with modern day writing. Honestly, it’s like the movie had a checklist of “impossibly awesome things” and it just checked them off one by one. Likable, realistic protagonist? Check. Creative, visually-stunning environment? Check. Bechdel Test pass? Check. Hilarious lines? Check. Catchy-as-hell musical numbers? Check. Gripping story with plenty of action and adventure? Check. Open exploration of people of color, also portrayed by people of color? Check, check, check. This film is a dream. It’s just so exciting and wonderful and powerful that I’ve already seen it twice and I’m trying my hardest not to see it a third time before it leaves theaters. So few films understand that there is a difference between seeing a movie and experiencing a movie. Moana is an experience. I found myself tearing up at the oddest moments, at moments that weren’t even sad, because I was just so wrapped up in the adventure and how it made me feel like anything was possible and that I got to be on this journey with these wonderful characters. Call me petty, but I am so damned glad that Moana was the one to take the crown away from Frozen in terms of opening weekend. Every bit of praise this film has gotten is more than well-earned. It’s practically demanded.
Storks: This one sort of slipped by a lot of people due to when it was released, but Storks was just the quirky kids’ film that I was looking for and I really enjoyed it. Even though I want to say they marketed it as the makers of the Lego Movie, this film smacks a lot of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, in terms of 70% of the jokes being Lampshade Hanging. It could really be argued that it’s more for teens an adults than it is for kids’, and I think the box office and its critical reception reflect that. It’s certainly not a bad thing, either. I was howling. It’s extremely creative, the performances are hilarious, and the humor is spot on. I told my parents to rent it one day so they can crack up at all the great parenting jokes. I consider it a hidden gem among the 2016 films and it’s worth a watch if you haven’t seen it.
Zootopia: Before Moana blew my mind, Zootopia was the other Disney film that completely made me fall head-over-heels in love with it, and I still am to this day. The last time I’ve watched a Disney film this many times, it was Tangled all the way back in 2010. I love Zootopia so much that I own two versions of it: the DVD and the Amazon streaming digital video, though to be fair, I didn’t know Netflix would add it to their library this fall. Zootopia is life. It’s such a well told story with an amazing examination of all kinds of prejudice, from basic sexism to complicated accidental reinforced stereotypes to obvious bigotry. I haven’t seen an animated film handle these concepts this well since Cats Don’t Dance. It’s so relevant now considering what’s been going on the past several years and yet even without the strongly worded, mature message, it’s just an enjoyable film with delightful characters.
The Legend of Tarzan: Oh, quit gaping at me. This movie was also pretty much panned by most people, but no one really disliked it moreso than they were just indifferent to it. Of the movies on my list, this is definitely at the bottom, but regardless, I actually really enjoyed this movie. To be clear, I didn’t expect to. The trailers were pretty generic and I really adore Disney’s take on Tarzan, so I wasn’t really in the market for a new interpretation, but once I saw that it wasn’t Disney remaking itself like it’s been doing in recent years, I decided to give it a try. (And half naked Alexander Skarsgaard is hard to say no to.) I discovered a surprisingly thoughtful film that paid respect to both sides of the fence in terms of nature and man. It doesn’t browbeat and it doesn’t have the same white savior problem that a lot of films similar to it tend to have. I really loved the flashback scenes of Tarzan’s early life. They were gripping and deeply emotional, and the performances were excellent, as was the cinematography and the soundtrack. I would argue it’s worth a watch or a rental for that same reason. I do admit that Margot Robbie is extremely damsel-y and useless, and Christoph Waltz is completely wasted on this script, but everything else about the film was good.
Deadpool: This needs no explanation. It was perfection. You know and I know it. Boom.
Kubo and the Two Strings: Like Storks, Kubo was sort of a niche marketed film, really only made for those who are really passionate about animated fairytales. Well, I am one of those people. I adore Laika productions, and Kubo is no exception. It’s a masterfully told, utterly moving, impressively beautiful film. It’s mature, but it still is palatable for children and young adults. If nothing else, Kubo needs to be seen for how rich and vibrant and detailed its cinematography is, and considering everything is stop-motion, it demands to be appreciated. The only downside is that unfortunately, the cast is not as diverse as it should have been. Don’t get me wrong: the voices chosen totally fit the characters and each actor did one hell of a job, but I still find myself disappointed that a movie set in feudal Japan has so few Japanese actors in it. The biggest casualty is George Takei, who had about three lines as a minor character. What the hell, Hollywood. It’s friggin’ George Takei and you didn’t give him a main role? Shame on you! Despite that shortcoming, Kubo is phenomenal and should not be missed.
That's it for this year. I can't wait for it to be over, because 2017 is a whole new chance for all of us, including some exciting new films.
At long last, I can finally say after all these years that we finally have a Star Wars prequel that isn’t Ewok droppings. It’s been a long wait, but thank God, the people who put this film together did not make any of the mistakes George “wiping my ass with your money and then lighting a doobie with it” Lucas made while making his insipid prequels. And yeah, shots fired. I fucking hate the Lucas prequels and I will stand by that no matter what neckbeard comes after me. Rogue One breaks the mold and has brought something new to the franchise, but still gives us that nostalgic hard sci-fi wonder. Naturally, spoilers ahead.
Overall Rating: B-
-The action is by far the biggest attraction for the film, and it delivers momentously. The movie is paced extremely well and almost every setting has something nail-biting to endure for its audience.
-The visuals, like Force Awakens, are breathtaking. I am so proud of the teams of animators who have worked on this film as well as Force Awakens. I love the integration of new CGI with practical sets and costumes. I admit I’m an old fogey. In most situations, I like seeing intricate costume work instead of full-CGI characters, and I love that these two new additions to the SW canon are throwbacks to the original films that blended the two so seamlessly. It’s like coming home, but there are just a few new knick-knacks lying around to admire.
-To that end, the motion capture recreation for General Tarkin was incredible. They did a phenomenal job bringing him back to life as a minor antagonist.
-The standout characters for me personally are K2-SO, Baze, and Chirrut. All three were exceptionally entertaining and had the most weight to them out of the main cast. I’ll expand more on that in a bit, but I think each of them left a much more lasting impression on me than Jyn or Cassian. I think it’s the performances themselves, to be honest. They captured me a lot more emotionally. Also, K2’s one-liners were delightfully well-placed throughout the film, especially considering that downer/bittersweet ending.
-Unlike the Lucas prequels that constantly reminded you “HEY REMEMBER THAT THING THAT HAPPENED IN THE ORIGINAL TRILOGY EVEN THOUGH IT’S ANACHRONISTIC TO MENTION IT NOW :DD” this film has very measured, contained cameos. They are brief and likable instead of being heavy foreshadowing that sucks you out of the film constantly.
-I also like that there aren’t a bunch of details in this prequel that ruin the original trilogy like in the Lucas prequels. I mean, goddammit, one of the best film villains of all time was nothing but a pouty, whiny, easily manipulated boy named Ani who hates sand. Rogue One stays in its own sandbox (*badum-pssh*) and as far as I can tell, it doesn’t fuck up the continuity too much because it’s an isolated story that affects a larger narrative without causing an accidental wrinkle in the story. But again, this is just an initial analysis. Star Wars veterans will be able to say if there are continuity errors that an Average Joe watcher like me wouldn’t have caught.
-I really like that the story doesn’t feel like a rehash of any of the other SW films. It feels fresh and on its own and it doesn’t rely too heavily on what we already know. It has room to breathe.
-I think Jyn is a weaker character than Rey by far, and it’s for two reasons. (1) I think that because the writers knew everyone in the story dies, they didn’t feel like committing to making us fall in love with them. We don’t learn enough about Jyn to be devastated at the moment of her death. She’s just sort of pouty and stubborn and she stumbles around without much of a skillset other than she hits people and shoots. We were very quickly given a reason to like Rey in Force Awakens and so we basically hold her hand through the hellish journey she undertakes. With Jyn, we’re just sort of slapped into the story with her and while we do feel bad about her family situation, she never quite feels human. She’s a little cold and flat and honestly, near useless. The only reason she is the main character is through bloodline. Yes, she chooses to fight later on, but it’s borderline coincidence. It doesn’t give her a lot of agency to just be the olive branch between her former mentor and the Alliance. That’s also another reason that I think I didn’t much care about her by the end: they should NOT have skipped over Jyn and Saw’s relationship. That was an enormous mistake. It definitely would have made her more sympathetic, especially since she basically has to watch him die just like she did her own mother. Family bonds are the life-blood of most stories and they make us connect with characters easily. This was a missed opportunity of titanic proportions, and it’s a waste of good Forrest Whitaker, if you ask me. He may do shitty films from time to time, but when he wants to act, he’s fucking rad. (2) I didn’t care for Felicity Jones’ performance. She looked on the brink of a sobbing episode in almost every frame. I don’t mean to knock an emotional, young woman character, but I didn’t believe in her fighting spirit. She didn’t sell me on it. I think she was miscast in addition to having underwhelming writing. She didn’t feel like she was handling her own story. She just sort of felt like a child that was getting lugged around from scene to scene, and even after the third act when she achieves her goal and stands up to the Empire, I just didn’t feel that swelling warmth like I did when Rey fought back against Darth Temper Tantrum—excuse me, Kylo Ren. I think if someone like Emily Blunt was in the role, she’d have felt more believable, even though I still think the problematic writing is why I didn’t care about Jyn.
-Similarly, Cassian wasn’t written strong enough for me to feel anything at his passing. Don’t get me wrong: his performance was solid, but they took too many shortcuts. I wanted to know more about why he was so okay with killing in cold blood, what it took to get him to that point, and a more detailed reason of why he eventually didn’t pull the trigger on Jyn’s father. It didn’t feel earned yet. Same with how I’d have liked to see more camaraderie between K2 and Cassian. It would have been even more devastating when K2 passes away with his comrade just next door to it.
-The introductions to the main leads are WAY too fast. I actually have IMDB open right now in order to name the characters. The movie throws you into it entirely too fast and I can’t remember anyone’s names except for Jyn and Cassian, and even then I had to check for spelling. The film really could have slowed down to give us more on who they are, especially since most of the character’s names are hard to pronounce by Layman’s standards. Same for the Empire bad guys. I can’t remember their names for shit, and that’s not a good thing.
-While K2 gets in some great one-liners, I think the dialogue leaves something to be desired. I don’t think I’ll remember much of what was said in this film in just a day or two. It’s a little forgettable.
-Nitpick: I’m sure kids will see it regardless, but I wouldn’t take small children to see the film. It’s 100% dark and everyone dies and you might eff your kid up for a week taking them to see literally everyone die for their cause. This is precisely why I usually skip war movies, with this being the exception because it’s set in a science-fiction world. There is no escape. Bad guys win the battle, good guys win the war, but it still fucking sucks to take a kid to a movie where every single hero is dead by the end. I’d say they might need to be at least ten years old to not bawl their poor little eyes out because, yeah, it’s literally a war flick. No hugs, no handouts, no last minute saves. They all…fucking…die.
That being said, I still like the film and think it’s set us on a great course for the future now that we know it’s possible to write a prequel that isn’t total shit like most prequels are. I hope everyone uses this film as an example of how to be competent and not rely on cameos and sloppy storytelling to make a prequel. I look forward to other stories like this one someday.
May the Force be with you.
(Sorry, I had to.)
We're only a week away from the release of my new sci-fi novel, Of Cinder and Bone. Ready for a taste? Here's Chapter 1.
“I swear to Vishnu, if this doesn’t work, I’m going to stab you in the throat with a Pipette.”
To the average person, this threat would have been quite worrisome, but not to Rhett “Jack” Jackson, Ph.D. He merely removed his sinhalite-hued eyes from the microscope and arched an eyebrow at his companion. “Um. Please don’t?”
Dr. Kamala Anjali rolled her own smoky-quartz eyes. “No promises. How’s it look?”
Jack sighed and massaged his sinuses. “Not any better than yesterday. Or the day before. Or the month before.”
“Your optimism is what I like best about you,” she said, nudging him aside to have her own look at the incubator. She examined it for a moment or two before echoing his sigh. The sperm and genetically modified egg might as well have been middle school kids at their first dance. Neither of them would even come near each other, let alone combine.
“Alright, I’m calling it. What time is it?”
Jack checked his watch. “Ten ‘til eleven.”
“Damn. Come on, let’s pack it up for the night.” She removed the sample and tucked it carefully into the cooler beside it, flipping off the light. She tapped her laptop and stared into the built-in camera, not bothering to disguise the scowl on her face. “Trial Number sixty-one proved negative results. Will reconvene for Trial Number sixty-two at eight am tomorrow.” She closed the program and then stuck the samples on a shelf in the nearby walk-in freezer.
Jack scooped together their mountain of paperwork and closed her laptop before slipping both into her brown leather briefcase. The two moved smoothly in their nightly ritual of replacing all the lab equipment to be ready for the next students.
He went over to the whiteboard at the far wall and started erasing the equations they’d written on it. There were enough that it looked like a wall of hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt, and for all intents and purposes, it might as well have been. It told stories of seemingly impossible things—things that couldn’t be explained except through faith.
Jack’s brush-strokes with the eraser were hard and quick. Kamala observed them out of her peripheral as she pushed their stools in towards the table. When the board was clean, he tossed it down next to the markers and ran a hand through his dark hair, hesitating before joining her again.
“So…I’m going to a party,” Kamala said brightly, grinning up at him as he helped her out of her lab coat. “You should come.”
Again, his right eyebrow rose. “Uh. You’ve met me, right? Two left feet. Made of clay. Attached to an absurdly uncoordinated frame.”
To emphasize this, he brandished both large hands at himself, drawing her attention to his six-foot-two gangly body. He looked right at home in a laboratory, with his brunette hair sticking up in random directions, crisp white button-down shirt, and charcoal grey slacks over black wing-tip Cole Haans.
Kamala shook her head, her short dark hair framing gracefully round cheekbones and delicate features. The nose-stud helped break up her doll-like qualities, though her five-foot-four height did not. “No one said you had to dance. Drink. Flirt with girls. You know, things college guys do?”
Jack’s cheeks colored a bit. “That’s not really my deal. Besides, we’ve got an early start tomorrow—”
“We always have an early start, Jack,” she said impatiently. “Doesn’t mean we can’t have fun between now and if we ever accomplish our ridiculously ambitious project.”
He scratched the back of his neck and avoided her eyes. “Still, though. Maybe tomorrow will be the big breakthrough. Can’t have a breakthrough if you’re hungover.”
“Fine.” She turned on her heel, marched to the door, and opened it for him, her smile fierce. “We’ll see what Faye has to say about it.”
He groaned as he walked out, his feet dragging across the tiles.
The second Kamala opened the door to her two-bedroom apartment—a single-level smushed in a row a mere three miles from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s main campus—Slayer poured out into the night to assault the ears of anyone nearby. Jack winced as he toed off his shoes and left them next to the welcome mat, shutting the door behind them. He caught the sharp scent of butter in the air as well as some form of greenery—probably sautéed kale, since Kamala was vegetarian—and walked in further to investigate.
A tall, leggy blonde stood in the kitchen, her hips swaying back and forth to the frantic drumbeats of “Angel of Death.” Her shoulder-length hair was tied high and bounced against the nape of her neck. Her blue-grey eyes stayed focused on the pan until the pair walked into her line of sight.
“Kam-Kam!” she grinned. “Back just in time! I’m almost done and then we can bounce to the party.”
She then glanced at Jack and her face sobered significantly. Jack’s wincing deepened. “What’s the Stiff doing here?”
Jack sighed. “I’m here at her request, Faye. Won’t be long, I swear.”
Kamala swept past her roommate and gave her a swat on the backside as she went. Jack tried not to notice, but it was difficult considering Faye only had on a pair of green girls’ boxer shorts and a black tank top. “Stop it, saheli. He just walked in the door. At least let me get him a drink before you verbally assault him.”
She tossed Jack a Coke from the pantry and popped open a can for herself, ignoring Faye’s scowl in her general direction. She then reached over the counter and turned the radio down to a dull roar. “Besides, you’re going to convince him to come to the party with us.”
“Ha!” the blonde exclaimed, switching off the stove and spooning the kale onto a plate. “Him? At a party? Like they’d even let him in.”
“Not the point. You are going to explain the scientific benefits and advantages of partying to our guest and that’s final.” Kamala garnished the command with a glare and then grabbed the plate from her. She plopped down on the stool in front of the breakfast nook and started eating, while staring pointedly at the pair.
Faye drummed her long fingers on the countertop and then let her gaze drag over Jack, who shuffled from foot to foot and idly sipped his soda. “We can’t take him looking like that.”
Kamala waved the comment aside. “We’ll make him change.”
Jack opened his mouth to protest, but Kamala’s glare silenced it. He pinched the bridge of his nose instead. Faye continued to examine him.
“Alright, Stilts…” Faye opened the fridge and withdrew a Granny Smith apple, biting down before continuing. “So who are you?”
He stared at her. “Beggin’ your pardon?”
She brandished a hand at him. “Who. Are. You? I mean, you’ve been Kam’s partner for a whole year, and the only things I know about you are you’re tall, awkward, you like science, and you’ve got an ass that won’t quit.”
He flushed pink. “That’s…I’m not seeing how this has anything to do with the party.”
“It has everything to do with the party. It’s not about the drinks or the girls or the music. It’s supposed to force you to open up and be social. It’s about having fun. I assume you’ve read about fun before, right?”
Jack exhaled through his nose and counted to five before responding. “Yeah, and I’ve also read about peer pressure.”
Faye rolled her eyes. “Work with me here, Stilts. You’re a scientist. You like to learn. You like new experiences. Is one night of partying going to wreck your whole life?”
“…well, no, but—”
“Butts are for Sir-Mix-a-Lot. Consider this part of your research. You are going to study two insanely beautiful women going to a party to decompress and have a good time. And, maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll crawl out of that shell and have a good time too.”
Jack glanced between the two of them, only to be met with matching walls of determination. He thought of several counterarguments, but got the sense that it’d be as effective as throwing a temper tantrum. “Alright, fine.”
He paused for an additional second and pointed a finger at her. “But I get to pick my own clothes, dammit!”
Faye smiled and patted his cheek. “No, you don’t.”
“…I don’t like you very much.”
“I look ridiculous.”
“You are ridiculous.”
“I swear, if you two don’t stop sniping at each other, I’m going to slam this car into a pole and kill us all.”
Kamala groaned and parked the car, tossing glares into the passenger’s side and backseat consecutively. “Behave.”
Faye batted her eyelashes. “I like it when you get mad. Your accent gets all thick and adorable.”
“Get out of the car before I hurt you.”
The trio exited Kamala’s powder-blue Volkswagen Beetle and walked two blocks down to the club. For once, the northeast didn’t have its icy claws set into the Cambridge area. It was a warm summer night, and the town had lit up with life as a result. Teenagers clustered around the local movie theaters to giggle and chat and flirt. Couples sat outside the diners and cafes, sipping their cocktails and discussing their future plans. Older folks held hands and walked along the storefronts to window-shop for their grandkids.
As they got closer, Faye’s hips automatically started swaying, which did interesting things to the fluttery bottom of her blood-orange mini-skirt. The white halter-top shirt lifted up in the back as she raised her arms to pump both fists. In Jack’s opinion, Faye could be the poster child for a head cheerleader or prom queen: full pink lips, flawless skin, natural blonde hair that fell in a perfect fluffy shower to her shoulders, legs that would have made Goldie Hawn jealous, and curves that shamed the English countryside. The even funnier part was that Faye was far more likely to beat up a cheerleader than actually be one.
“Oh, they’re playing my song,” she said with a happy sigh. “I can already tell this is going to be a great night.”
“Yep. Great,” Jack muttered under his breath, staring at his unfamiliar red Chucks as he walked. His mother had bought them for him last Christmas, and was blissfully unaware he’d hidden them in the back of his closet. Kamala and Faye had unearthed them, as well as a leather jacket, some blue jeans, and a scarlet t-shirt with the Flash insignia on the chest. He’d complained that he looked like a sixteen-year-old going to comic con, to which both women said, “Get over it.”
Kamala bumped his arm with her elbow. He glanced over, expecting a glare, but she smiled instead, and the overhead lamp made her lovely brown lips gleam. “Don’t worry.”
She slipped her fingers between his, leaning in as if sharing a secret. “I’ll never let go, Jack.”
He threw his head back and howled in annoyance. “Do you know how many times I’ve heard that before?”
Kamala cackled. “It was worth it for the look on your face.”
But she did squeeze his hand before letting go and he had to admit he didn’t mind. Kamala and Faye were like night and day. Faye loved loud-colored clothing that showed off what a bombshell she was, while Kamala preferred a more subtle style. She had thick, glossy hair cut in a layered bob just below her chin, entrancing lips, long lashes, and a voice that reminded him of warm honey in a cup of hot lemon tea. She’d chosen a burgundy dress with silver jewelry and platform heels so she could see through the crowd easier. The ensemble was just as devastating as Faye’s bright colors.
A couple of burly men in black stood outside the club checking IDs. Jack flipped his wallet open, but the guy waved him through with a smirk, somehow sensing from his discomfort that he was well over twenty-one. Then he followed Faye up the steps into the club and was instantly swallowed in dub-step.
The stairwell led to a loft-style club, currently packed to the rafters with partygoers. Pink, purple, and blue lights slashed through the darkness and shocked Jack’s pupils momentarily. He felt Kamala grip his hand again and tug him towards the bar against the far wall, where Faye had led the way. She sidled up to one corner and gave the bartender a Cheshire cat grin, raising her voice over the pounding music to order three beers: one Samuel Adams and two Coronas.
She scooped the drinks up and beckoned her friends to one of the tables against the wall, overlooking downtown and all the mischief that had kicked up on a Friday night. Jack found himself relieved that the stools were high, meaning he wouldn’t have to hunch over the table to be level with the girls.
Faye uncapped the beers and passed them out. “So what are we drinking to? World peace? Cure for cancer? Zombie apocalypse?”
Kamala raised her bottle. “Here’s to the semester. We’ve got less than a month to turn in some results or we lose the grant.”
Jack grimaced, holding his out as well. “I’ll drink to that.”
Faye shook her head. “No way. We’re not going to start down that road. I have no doubt in my mind that you two eggheads will find a match. It’s going to happen. May God strike me down if I—”
She started coughing violently. Kamala rolled her eyes. Even Jack cracked a smile. “Excuse me. What was I saying?”
Kamala shook her head. “She’s right. Forget about the project. Let’s just enjoy the night for once. Brahma-knows how many more of them we’ll get.”
They clinked the bottles together and drank deeply. Faye’s eyes darted around the room with laser precision and her smile widened. “I’ve spotted my quarry. Kam, are you with me or do you want to entertain the Stiff for a while?”
“I’ll catch up, troublemaker.”
Faye tossed her golden hair, took one last pull that emptied the bottle, and stalked off towards some unsuspecting gentleman for a dance. Jack watched, resting his head on one hand.
“I still can’t believe she’s an electrical engineering expert. A section of my brain implodes every time I think about it.”
Kamala chuckled. “Mysteries of the universe. Speaking of which…”
She leaned in a bit. “Why don’t you like to go out, Jack? Still pretending to be a good little Christian boy?”
“Ha!” he said after another mouthful of beer. “No, I, uh, just don’t seem to mingle well. Not much of a conversation-starter.”
“Nonsense. You get along with me just fine.”
He ran his fingers down the sweating glass bottle. “You’re the exception, trust me. It’s not like I don’t know how. Just don’t see much reason to, not with what I want out of life.”
She studied him for a moment. “You want to make the world a better place. That much I know. But you’re still a part of that world, Jack. You can’t look through a microscope your whole life. You’ll miss what’s really there.”
His mouth suddenly felt alarmingly dry. He swallowed a couple times. “Yeah, I guess so. But maybe—”
“Hey there, gorgeous!” A sandy-haired guy appeared with a broad grin and blue eyes focused intently on Kamala. “Care to dance?”
She glanced him over and a slow smile crawled over her lips. “Sure, but on one condition.”
She pointed at Jack. “Find someone to keep him company and I’m all yours.”
“Oh, no problem at all, babe.”
“No, it’s fine, it’s not necessary—” Jack protested, only to be brought a stunning redhead in a royal purple dress.
“This is Kim,” the sandy-haired stranger said. “Junior. Art-history major.”
She smiled. “Hi.”
Jack promptly forgot how to speak English.
Kamala looped one arm through the stranger’s and stifled a giggle before they left. “Back in a bit. Have fun!”
Jack coughed slightly and offered his hand. “Hi, uh. I’m Jack.”
Kim took it. “Jack what?”
“Your last name, silly.”
She blinked at him. “Your name is Jack Jackson?”
He blushed. “No, uh, my first name’s Rhett, but I hate it, so…”
He gestured to the chair and she sat. Her dress rode up several inches, exposing pleasing long lines of creamy skin. “Well, Jack, what’s your field of study?”
“Biological Engineering, Genetics, and Microbiology. Post-doc. I’m working on a research project at the institute.”
“Really? Oh, uh, my apple martini’s getting a little low.”
“I’ve got that, one second.” He scurried to the bar and bought her a fresh one. She sipped and managed to make it look not only seductive but graceful as well.
“What do you want to do after you’re done with the project?” Kim continued.
“Depends on what I find.”
She sent him a simmering smile. “What are you looking for?”
Immediately, Jack’s eyes lit up and his posture straightened. “I started the project with the intention of learning how to increase the reproduction of certain endangered species. I had interest in the idea of cloning, but it proved too difficult based on the research I compiled, so I went into animal genetics and cellular biology. It turns out the animals with the best potential to combine genes were reptiles because their ability to lay eggs was a smoother transition into combining the cells to create a new species, or one with a similar ancestry that could hopefully lead to rebuilding extinct animals via surrogate birth or in-vitro fertilization. We’re on the edge of breaking that code, and if we do, it would mean that we could engineer all kinds of life and reverse what damage we’ve done to the planet’s ecosystem.”
Kim stared. “Right. Would you excuse me for a second?”
She wiggled off back to her pack of friends by the bar. Judging by the sniggering and the disgusted glances he was getting, she wasn’t coming back.
Jack sighed and finished off his beer, massaging his forehead. “Yes, brilliant move. You blinded her with science. Genius, Jack.”
He ordered a second one and finished it before he felt smallish hands on his shoulders and a pair of soft lips on his cheek. He turned to find Kamala had returned, her smile unnaturally bright in the black lights glowing over the room. “So…how did it go with Kim?”
He shot her a flat look. “You notice the chair is empty.”
Kamala groaned. “You talked about the research project, didn’t you?”
“No!” She glared at him.
“You’re so useless, Jack.” She paused and then tousled his hair a bit. “Cheer up. The night’s still young. I’m not giving up on you.”
He smiled in spite of himself. “Yet.”
Her brown eyes flashed. “Never.”
She grabbed his wrists and hauled him from the seat, dragging him into the writhing swarm of bodies on the dance floor. The dub-step had given way to a surging reggae beat that made the very walls of the club vibrate.
Before he could protest about his lack of rhythm, she tugged him in close and told him to loosen up. Her body may have been small, but the energy coursing through it made her seem so singular. She never missed a beat, swaying, jerking her hips left to right, her mouth wide with a smile, her dark hair fluttering over her cheeks, her hands guiding him to mirror her movements. After a moment or two, he stopped hating the idea of dancing. Another minute and he didn’t mind it. A third minute and he sort of liked it a bit. A fourth minute, and he found himself thinking he could get used to it as long as she was always his partner.
The song ended too soon for his liking, melting into a slow dance that the DJ claimed was part of the classic oldies, something about love making a fool of the singer. Kamala gripped his shirt and tugged him down to her height, still grinning and breathing hard.
“See?” she murmured in his ear. “Maybe you’re fun after all.”
She tugged him off the floor just as everyone paired up for the slow dance, and Jack’s stomach sank a little as he followed. She led him to the bar where Faye was doing what she did best: making men fall over themselves to impress her. There was a towering stack of recently emptied shot glasses beside her along with a burly twenty-something frat boy, whose stack was slightly smaller.
“Come on, junior!” Faye laughed as the bartender refilled her glass. “I’ve seen freshmen in undergrad take shots better than you.”
“Aw, give me a break, babe,” the guy gasped out after finishing his shot.
“Why should I? There’s got to be someone here who can out-drink me.”
He leaned in with a leering smirk. “What do I get if I beat you?”
Jack bristled and stepped up next to her. “Uh, Faye, how many of these have you had?”
She waved the comment away. “Just a few, Buzz Killington.”
“Since when is twelve a few? I must have missed that day in math class. Look, maybe you should give it a rest for a bit, huh?”
She shot him a glare. “You sayin’ I can’t handle it?”
He took a breath to cool his temper. “I’m saying you don’t have to.”
Her drinking companion scowled then. “Hey, the lady can make her own decisions, man. Back off.”
Jack’s hands formed fists. Kamala pushed through the small throng that had gathered, her voice sharp over the murmurs. “All three of you need to chill out. Faye, you’ve had enough for tonight. Let’s go sit down for a while.”
“Oh, don’t tell me you’re drinking his Kool-Aid, sweetheart,” the big guy said, laying a hand on her shoulder. “She’s tough. She can take it. I’m betting you can too.”
Kamala brushed his hand off. “Keep it up and you’ll find out just what you can take.”
“Is that an invitation?” The hand returned at the small of her back and she batted his arm away, angry.
“Don’t touch me.”
The stranger rolled his eyes and reached for another shot. “God, why do the hot ones always have bitchy best friends?”
The glass had just touched the guy’s lips when Jack’s fist crashed into his chin. His head bounced off the side of the bar and he hit the floor, dazed. A chorus of “oohs” spread through the room like a virus, and Kamala shoved him backward, her eyes wide, mouth agape. “Jack!”
“Call her that again,” he snarled over her head. “Please call her that again.”
The frat boy rose to his feet, his left cheek swelling, his face red as a stoplight. Jack shoved Kamala aside as the drunken frat boy threw a sloppy haymaker, flinching as it bounced off his shoulder. He then laid him out flat with a right cross.
By now, the bartender had called the bouncers, who both hauled Jack towards the exit, though he put up no fight after he’d downed the guy. Kamala and Faye followed him onto the sidewalk where he’d been sprawled on his ass after a vicious shove from the bouncer.
“What the hell, Jack?” Kamala shrieked, helping him up. “I mean…no, I was right the first time--what the hell.”
He rolled his shoulder, pulling the collar of his shirt aside to see a bruise already forming. “Shouldn’t have called you a bitch.”
“It’s a word. I’m not a child. I can handle some drunken asshole calling me names.”
He frowned. “Well, I can’t. I’m sorry.”
Kamala sighed. “It’s fine. I’m glad you’re alright.”
She instead whirled on Faye, who was clutching a lamp post to stay upright and staring at Jack as if she’d never seen him before. “And you! You’re going straight to bed to sleep off what has to be an entire gallon of tequila by now.”
“Bed, huh?” Faye grinned, her slightly glazed eyes twinkling. “Can I take Tough Guy with me?”
“Don’t start with me,” Jack growled.
“Maybe I want to,” she purred back.
“Faye,” Kamala said, giving her a shove towards the sidewalk where taxi cabs had already begun to choke the streets. “Not now. Walk.”
“Ugh, lighten up, babe,” Faye said, looping a long arm around her friend’s shoulder and kissing her cheek. “We just had our first bar fight. Best night ever!”
“I’m going to kill you in the morning.”
Why was there an elephant sitting on Jack’s head?
He groaned, long and low, into the pillow. The pain. Dear God, the pain. His temples throbbed in rhythm with his heartbeat and he swore someone had delicately balanced an entire African elephant on his skull. His stomach jostled and threatened to revolt, but he took a couple of deep breaths and the nausea abated. All that was left was the bone-crunching agony reverberating through his head, down his neck, and over his whole body. Which was unnaturally warm for some reason, come to think of it.
After the pain died down enough for his senses to work, Jack realized he was in his bed at home. The sheets smelled faintly of fabric softener and Calvin Klein cologne, the telltale signs. The sheets were halfway down his hips for some reason, though.
He reached to pull the covers over his head so he could properly wallow in his misery, but said arm was occupied. He cracked an eyelid open to figure out why.
Kamala’s adorable sleeping face was inches away. Her head rested on the crook of his arm, which served as an impromptu pillow. Jack paled so quickly that he got dizzy.
“Relax,” a female voice murmured. “You’re not awesome enough for a threesome, Jack.”
His head popped up from the pillow only to discover Faye lying behind Kamala, smiling smugly at the utter confusion on his face.
“Wha?” He paused, trying to remember how to talk. “Do I even want to know?”
She chuckled. “Maybe.”
She nodded towards Kamala, and Jack finally realized why he felt so warm. She had folded her small body into his, one arm dangling over his waist beneath the covers, the other tucked beneath her side.
He started to scoot away, but she made a noise of protest and snuggled closer, tucking her head under his neck for warmth. He blushed and kept still this time, glancing at the amused look on her roommate’s face. “Ah. How?”
“Kamala drove us here,” Faye said, propping her head up on one arm. Her hair was up in a ponytail, and curling strands escaped to rest on her temple and nape. The other arm rested protectively on her best friend’s hip—a clear statement, if Jack ever saw one. Conversely, her body language practically radiated calm, like a blonde well-fed tiger. The analogy felt about right, since he sensed that she might tear his throat out by the end of the day.
“We iced down your shoulder and started the Family Guy drinking game with tequila shots. You know, drink every time there’s a pointless cutaway gag or an 80’s reference. Two episodes in and we were pretty much trashed. Kamala dozed off first, then you, and I didn’t feel like taking the bus home, so I crawled in with you.”
“Right,” he said, licking his dry lips. “Anything else I missed?”
“No. But I think I misjudged you.”
He stared. “You’re kidding.”
She shrugged a shoulder. “What? You’re a textbook nerd. I sure as shit wouldn’t have guessed you could fight.”
Her eyes lit up then. “Speaking of which, where’d that come from?”
Jack exhaled. “Aren’t you worried we’re gonna wake her up?”
Faye gave her friend a smack on the butt. Kamala mumbled something in Hindi and didn’t stir. “She sleeps like the dead. We’re safe. Now spill.”
“Grew up on a farm. Never put on any muscle. I’ve always been wiry. Got picked on sometimes. Got into a couple fights. Old man didn’t want his kid being bullied, so he taught me how to throw and take a punch.”
She paused. “How to take a punch?”
Jack shrugged, but his eyes said what his posture didn’t. “Is what it is. I don’t like to broadcast it.”
“No shit. Two hits and the guy was down. Remind me never to piss you off.”
He smirked. “Like that’s ever stopped you before.”
She matched the smirk. “Point taken, farmboy.”
The amusement faded and she gestured towards his shoulder. “Sorry about last night. You were right. I was out of line.”
He shook his head. “Lost my temper anyhow. Forget it.”
“So,” she said, narrowing her eyes slightly. “You gonna tell her how you feel?”
Jack didn’t back down from her frostbite stare. “Are you?”
She stopped breathing for a second. “Excuse me?”
“You heard me,” he murmured.
Faye clenched her jaw. “Where do you get off thinking you know anything about how I feel?”
“Same place you do, apparently.”
Her breathing spiked, and for a moment, he thought she’d swing on him, but she cursed under her breath and held back. She closed her eyes for a while instead. “How long have you known?”
“And you didn’t say anything.”
Again, he shrugged. “None of my business.”
She snorted, glancing over Kamala. “Can’t believe she’s fucked us both up. Figuratively speaking, of course.”
Jack choked on a laugh. “Of course.”
She met his gaze again. “You love her?”
“Dunno,” he whispered. “Never been in love. You?”
“Maybe. Been in enough relationships to know what it isn’t. Too chickenshit to find out for the moment. I guess you could say I’m waiting to see what happens.”
“Well, between you, me, and the wallpaper, I think you’ve got a better shot than I do.”
“Ha. You wouldn’t say that if you knew how she talked about you when you’re not around.”
His brows lifted. “She talks about me?”
Faye rolled her eyes. “God, are all men this thick or is it just you? You’ve spent a year seeing her almost every day. Your work is what got her back on track. She thought about giving up on her career before she found your project, Jack.”
He frowned down at the dark-haired pixie before him. “I…didn’t know that. She’s always so fearless. I figured she knew from the get-go what she wanted.”
“No one ever does. Why should she be any different?” Faye tucked a lock of hair behind Kamala’s ear and listened to her sigh. “I don’t know where this is gonna go. I don’t. And we both have a lot to lose, but…maybe you should say something. She can’t stay in the dark forever. It’s not fair.”
“Easier said than done.”
Faye smiled, a little sadly this time. “That’s love, Stilts.”
Before he could say anything else, she leaned across Kamala and kissed Jack full on the mouth.
“And if it’s any consolation,” she whispered, their lips still touching. “It’s her loss if she says no.”
She then grinned at the stunned look on his face. “I’m gonna go get some coffee.”
With that, Faye slipped from beneath the covers and disappeared out of the room, humming “Silly” by Deniece Williams. Jack stared at the doorway long after she’d gone through it and listened to Kamala’s soft breaths against his sternum.
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Kyoko M is the Amazon bestselling author of The Black Parade and the Of Cinder and Bone series.